Iran Frees Navy Veteran Held for Two Years

By Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone

The release of Michael R. White came as an Iranian-American doctor convicted of export violations was freed in the United States, and day after an Iranian scientist held by the American authorities was returned to Iran.

Michael R. White with his mother, Joanne White, in 2018.
Michael R. White with his mother, Joanne White, in 2018.Credit...White Family, via Associated Press

By Farnaz Fassihi and

Iran on Thursday freed Michael R. White, a Navy veteran whose nearly two-year-long incarceration had become another sore point in the country’s increasingly tense relationship with the United States.

Mr. White’s release, part of a prisoner exchange, was the latest signal that despite their mutual hostility, Iran’s leadership and the Trump administration are communicating with each other.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among the most hawkish members of the administration on Iran, said he was pleased that the Iranian authorities had been “constructive in this matter.” But he reiterated demands for Iran’s release of all Americans and for a full accounting of what happened to another American who had gone missing in Iran more than 13 years ago.

Mr. White was flown out of Iran as federal prosecutors in Atlanta completed arrangements releasing an Iranian-American doctor who had been convicted in a 2018 exports violation case. The doctor, Matteo Taerri, also known as Majid Taheri, who has lived in both Florida and the Atlanta area for many years, will be permitted to visit Iran, said Steven P. Berne, his lawyer.

Mr. Berne said negotiations involving the exchange of Dr. Taerri for Mr. White had been proceeding quietly for months.

“It’s a happy ending for all,” he said by telephone.

Mr. White’s release also came a day after an Iranian scientist, Sirous Asgari, who had been held by United States immigration authorities for months, arrived in Tehran. Both men had been infected with the coronavirus while in custody, and Iranian officials had indicated they would release Mr. White after the scientist had returned home.

Mr. White’s mother, Joanne, was the first to break the news of his release, issuing a statement that she was “blessed to announce that the nightmare is over.” President Trump later tweeted that Mr. White was safely out of Iranian airspace on a Swiss government jet.

It was not immediately clear where he would arrive in the United States or when he might speak about his ordeal. “In time, Michael will tell it himself, his way,” his mother said in the statement. “Until then, we’d like to respectfully ask that the media respect our family’s privacy.”

There had been intensifying speculation that Iran was preparing to release Mr. White, 48, a cancer patient.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has accused the United States of holding a number of Iranians illegally, spoke about the release of all three men in a Twitter post and suggested that more such exchanges were possible.

“Pleased that Dr. Majid Taheri and Mr. White will soon be joining their families,” Mr. Zarif said on his Twitter account. “Prof. Sirous Asgari was happily reunited with his family on Weds. This can happen for all prisoners. No need for cherry picking.”

American officials have repeatedly said the cases of Mr. White and Mr. Asgari were not linked, and that the United States had first sought to deport Mr. Asgari last December but could not, partly because of difficulties in arranging air travel during the coronavirus pandemic. Iranian officials suggested in May that once the scientist was back in Iran, they would look favorably at permitting Mr. White to go home.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter that Mr. White would be “home with his family in America very soon.”

For Mr. Trump, the news of Mr. White’s release offered a diversion from the multiple crises that have rocked his administration — his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the widespread protests against the police killing of George Floyd and other African-Americans, and his bellicose threat to deploy the military to crush urban unrest.

Mr. White, of Imperial City, Calif., was arrested in July 2018 while visiting an Iranian woman, whom his family said he had met on the internet, in the northeast city of Mashhad. He was later convicted of privacy violations and of insulting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Iranian prosecutors also suggested he was a spy.

His mother did not know he had been imprisoned until months afterward. She repeatedly called on the Iranian authorities to free him, insisting he had done nothing wrong and that his health was in danger. Mr. White had been treated for throat cancer before he went to Iran.

He was furloughed from prison a few months ago when the coronavirus became a crisis in Iran. Swiss diplomats, who act on behalf of the United States in Iran, have been looking after his case.

The prisoner issue is especially contentious between the United States and Iran, which broke diplomatic relations 40 years ago after the Islamic revolution. Each country has repeatedly accused the other of holding their citizens for political reasons.

At least three other Americans, all with dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, are known to be in custody in Iran. They are Siamak Namazi, a business executive; his father, Baquer Namazi, a former Unicef diplomat; and Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist. All were accused of collaboration with the United States.

Iran also has not provided information on what happened to Robert A. Levinson, a retired F.B.I. agent who disappeared in Iran in March 2007 on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A. His family said a few months ago that Trump administration officials have concluded he died while in Iranian custody.

Mr. Pompeo made a point of raising the Levinson mystery in his statement on Mr. White’s release.

“While we are pleased that Iran was constructive in this matter, there is more work to do,” he said. Besides the Americans who remain incarcerated, he called for Iran to “provide a full accounting of the fate of Robert Levinson.”

Ms. White acknowledged the remaining prisoners in her statement about her son’s release.

“My prayers are with the Namazi and Tahbaz families and the families of so many other wrongfully detained Americans around the world.,” she said in her statement.

Ms. White also expressed thanks to the Swiss diplomats and to Bill Richardson, who has specialized in securing the release of Americans held overseas in the years since he served as a United Nations ambassador and New Mexico governor. Mr. Richardson’s foundation said in a statement that he had acted on behalf of the White family in negotiations with Iranian officials that relied on “personal relations and respect.”

The release of Mr. White also was welcomed by Babak Namazi, who has been pressing for the release of his brother, Siamak, and father, Baquer, for years. But he also expressed disappointment.

“Every hostage that gets released is a victory for humanity,” Mr. Namazi said in a statement. Still, he said, “how much should one family have to bear and what will it take to finally get my loved ones home?”

Mr. White is the second American to be freed by Iran since President Trump took office. Although relations between the United States and Iran have worsened during his administration, both sides have sent signals about possible prisoner exchanges.

In December, Iran freed Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student charged with spying, in a swap for an Iranian scientist who had been convicted in the United States on charges of violating American trade sanctions.

Free Xiyue Wang, a group that had been formed to advocate for Mr. Wang’s release and has remained active since, said on Twitter that it was relieved about Mr. White’s release. “We hope all hostages under Iranian custody will be reunited with their families soon,” it said. “These innocent men and women have endured way too long.”

Lara Jakes contributed reporting.